ATLANTA — The road between the Mets and the All-Star break is littered with trouble. It includes a pair of series against the NL East-leading Nationals, the first of which begins Monday night.
It also features four games against the juggernaut Cubs, whom Mets manager Terry Collins called “arguably the best team in baseball right now.”
The next two weeks promise to be treacherous, which is why Collins opted for caution in Sunday’s series finale against the lowly Braves. He rested Curtis Granderson and Asdrubal Cabrera and resolved to stay away from his top two relievers, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia.
“We’ve got some fresh faces in there just to give our guys some rest, which we need,” Collins said before the Mets paid their short-term toll, dropping a 5-2 decision to the worst team in the division.
Not that the Mets made them look that way. After getting swept by the Braves in a three-game series during their most recent homestand, the Mets managed only a split in this four-game series.
Freddie Freeman hit a first-inning solo homer off Bartolo Colon, who allowed nothing more in his seven innings. But just like Jacob deGrom the day before, Colon got no run support in his first outing since a line drive knocked him out one batter into his start.
The impact left Colon with a banged-up right thumb but the 43-year-old insisted that it gave him no problems, one of the few hints of encouraging news that the Mets could extract from another maddening day.
“At no point throughout the game did it bother me,” Colon said through a translator.
Colon kept the Mets within arm’s reach, but in the eighth, Antonio Bastardo and Logan Verrett paved the way for a four-run eighth inning that gave the Braves a 5-0 lead.
Bastardo faced three hitters, allowing two singles and a walk and committing a balk. He was charged with three runs and his ERA rose to 5.46 in his first season with the Mets after signing a two-year, $12-million contract. Verrett followed by surrendering a three-run homer by Adonis Garcia.
Braves righty Bud Norris tossed seven shutout innings, allowing four hits and striking out a season-high eight batters. Freeman finished a triple away from the cycle, going 3-for-3 with a walk.
With his parents in the stands for his first big-league start, Mets prospect Brandon Nimmo went 0-for-4 and bounced into a forceout in the fifth, when he batted with two on and none out. He also stranded a runner at second in the ninth, striking out looking to end the game.
Of course, he wasn’t alone in faltering when faced with a critical spot. The Mets finished 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. They did not score until the ninth, when Yoenis Cespedes drove in a run with a groundout and Wilmer Flores added an RBI single.
Now the Mets begin a two-week stretch that Collins called “very, very important for us.” The challenge begins with three games at Washington, which holds a three-game lead in the standings after ending a seven-game losing streak Sunday.
“It’s a tremendous situation. We’re very fortunate to be in it,” Collins said.
Monday night’s matchup will be the first of seven games against the Nationals before the break. The Mets hope for a replay of last season, when they took advantage of head-to-head contests against their rivals.
“We rose to the occasion,” said Kelly Johnson, whose arrival last season helped turn around a struggling offense. “I’d like to see us do that again this year.”